[Follow That Story]

It’s a Friday night, and you decide to check out the happenings over at the “new U.” U Street NW is jammed with revelers, each one creepy-crawling down the strip in a spotless sports car, Acura, or sport-utility vehicle, giving a hoot or selective honk to reward a fine-looking specimen who walks or drives by.

Decked out in a white Hanes Beefy-T and OP corduroy shorts, you seem to attract attention only when your 1979 Volvo stick-shift stalls out waiting for the traffic to move. So when you finally approach the corner of 14th and U, you just can’t bear the thought of waiting for another round of lights. As the yellow turns to red, you slam your foot on the accelerator and make tracks for the other side. No one seems to notice you anyway, right?

Lockheed Martin IMS does. As your Volvo tank storms through the red light and proceeds across the intersection, one of your front tires hits a sensor in the pavement that causes a high-speed camera located above to snap a photograph of your license plate. In a few weeks, you’ll receive a $75 ticket in the mail and have two points taken off your license.

Red light enforcement cameras are just one of the growing number of municipal and social services for which Lockheed has contracted with the District government (“Bombs Away,” 5/28). Last week, the defense-industry giant put in place the first two of the 40 red light enforcement cameras it has contracted with the Metropolitan Police Department to install. The cameras are being sold as a public safety asset—a high-tech monetary disincentive to impatient drivers.

But given Lockheed’s local record—and D.C.’s tradition of lax oversight—the cameras also have the potential to become a public menace. In jurisdictions where Lockheed-contracted cameras are already being used—such as Alexandria—police officers review each photograph to assess whether a ticket should in fact be issued. According to the District’s contract, however, it will be Lockheed personnel who make that determination here in D.C. Police officers will review a photo only if Lockheed can’t figure out whether a violation occurred.

And given the contract’s fee structure, you can bet local police won’t be swamped with Lockheed inquisitions. Unlike in Alexandria, which contracted the cameras for a flat fee, in the District Lockheed will pocket a hefty portion of each ticket issued. The firm gets $32 of each of the first 199,000 standard $75 tickets issued; the fee slides to $16 per ticket over the contract period.

Even automobile safety advocates question how much public good the cameras will bring. “I just don’t think that what we’ve got here protects the city,” says Lon Anderson of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Automobile Association. “It has to meet the test of public confidence.”

Lockheed’s maintenance record in D.C. hasn’t exactly made it Mr. Goodwrench. Let’s say you head back to U Street on Monday: After a couple of jaunts up and down the street, you finally land a parking spot. You put two quarters into the meter—which should, according to the instructions, buy you an hour’s worth of time in the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops.

But when you return 50 minutes later, you find a pink surprise on your windshield. You’ve just received a parking ticket for an expired meter.

Last month, D.C. Department of Public Works officials admitted that the 15,000 new parking meters installed as part of an estimated $26.5 million, seven-year contract contain a mechanical bug. The computer mechanism that screens for slugs and foreign coins also seems to be rejecting slightly scarred—but perfectly legal—U.S. tender. The contractor? Lockheed Martin IMS.

When the meter problem was revealed, Lockheed officials shifted the blame to Duncan Industries Inc., the manufacturer of the meters. Duncan has agreed to replace the faulty mechanisms in the meters. Lockheed has used a similar PR technique to exonerate itself from fault in other program shortcomings. When the company’s child support tracking systems failed to perform in Maryland and California, Lockheed blamed the states for providing bad information. Gatsometer, the manufacturer of Lockheed’s red light cameras, can expect the same treatment if something goes wrong with them.

Lockheed officials quickly dismiss any concerns about the meters. “There’s not been a serious problem in D.C.,” says Lockheed spokesperson Ron Jury. “There’s nothing wrong with the meters—nobody’s replacing all the computers for the year 2000; they’re [just] recalibrating them.”

Lockheed officials failed to comment on the firm’s possible conflict of interest when tickets are issued as a result of its meter shortcomings: The company also has a lucrative contract with the city to process and collect parking tickets. If you fail to protest or pay that U Street pink slip on time, Lockheed will come knocking at your door looking for the dough.

“It’s totally different technology, totally different,” says Jury of the cameras. “District residents shouldn’t be worried.” CP